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A Review of Michael Penfold’s Sermon on the Sovereignty of God at Hebron Gospel Hall, Bicester, UK on 11th March 2010 by Joel Barnes




On Thursday March 11th, 2010 at the Hebron Gospel Hall in Bicester, England, Michael Penfold preached a sermon on the attributes of God, which included a treatment of the sovereignty of God. As I listened to Mr. Penfold's sermon, I found parts of it quite helpful.

Where he touched on God's attribute of aseity, for example, I thought his exposition of God's self-existence and self-sufficiency was well done. Unfortunately, I did not find Mr. Penfold's treatment of the sovereignty of God as helpful. I will elaborate further by addressing some parts of the sermon below. Mr. Penfold's words will be in bold font along with the approximate time of their occurrence in the audio file, which is available on the Hebron Gospel Hall website.

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Love finds expression in everything that He says and does, and summing up all that God is. So many pulpits have it written above it, "God is love." Not "God has love," or "God specializes in love." God is love. (6 minutes, 34 seconds)

The linking verb "is" can be very difficult to interpret. One scholar (D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Edition, 1996, pp. 57-58) notes at least four different uses:

1. Identity: "Is the law sin?" (Romans 7.7, KJV)
2. Attribute: "There is none good but one, that is, God." (Mark 10.18, KJV)
3. Cause: "For to be carnally minded is death..." (Romans 8.6, KJV)
4. Resemblance: "And the tongue is a fire..." (James 3.6, KJV)

The linking verb in the proposition, "God is love," says something about identity or quality (attribute). In his advanced grammar, Daniel Wallace states that the proposition, "God is love," is qualitative (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 1996, p. 264), meaning love is here spoken of as a divine attribute. Insofar as Mr. Penfold means love is one of God's attributes, his comments on the love of God are unproblematic. But when he suggests that love sums up all that God is, he has stepped well beyond the biblical data and skewed the doctrine of the love of God. Love is but one attribute of God among many attributes. These many attributes, and not any one attribute such as love, sum up all that God is.

There are other propositions about God with an identical grammatical structure to that in 1 John 4.8 (e.g., "God is spirit," "God is light"). Mr. Penfold even makes reference to them in passing. What, are we to suppose that non-corporality sums up all that God is by virtue of the linking verb "is"? This may seem like a small point, but as the sermon progresses, it is clear that the arbitrary priority that Mr. Penfold gives to the love of God regulates other divine attributes, most notably the sovereignty of God.

Dear old AW Pink: I read his book many, many, years ago, The Sovereignty of God. He says on page 82 of that book, "God ordained that some of Adam's descendants should be damned." You say, "Well, could that be true?" Well, if it was true, what've I just explained could not be true - that God's sovereignty, God's absolute lordship can never be inconsistent with his love. (22 minutes, 39 seconds)

There is no disagreement with Mr. Penfold when he asserts a consistency between God's sovereignty and his love. Truly, God's sovereignty can never be inconsistent with his love. By the same token, however, God's love can never be inconsistent with his sovereignty. Mr. Penfold does not make this latter qualification, perhaps revealing an arbitrary priority for the love of God.

Mr. Penfold takes a philosophical approach to the doctrine of reprobation introduced here in the quotation from A.W. Pink. Mr. Penfold asserts that reprobation is contrary to God's character. The doctrine is untrue because it is inconsistent with God's love, so we are told. When a philosophical approach like this is taken, the burden of proof is on Mr. Penfold to demonstrate how reprobation is contrary to God's character. Unfortunately, no such demonstration is forthcoming.

To compound the problem, there is biblical data in support of reprobation. In the same chapter of Mr. Pink's book from whence Mr. Penfold quotes, Mr. Pink offers Romans 9.22 in support of reprobation. Unfortunately, Mr. Penfold doesn't mention or interact with this text, let alone the host of other supporting texts: Isaiah 6.9-10, Malachi 1.2-3, Matthew 11.25-26, John 12.39-40, Rom 9.11-13, Romans 11.7, 1 Thessalonians 5.9, 2 Thessalonians 2.11, 1 Peter 2.6-8, and Jude 4 (adapted from a list in Steve Hays, "Double Predestination" 2006).

So Mr. Penfold has presented a view of the sovereignty of God by telling us what it is not. God's sovereignty has nothing to do with reprobation. Unfortunately, his view is unsupported. The only people likely to agree with him at this juncture are those who have previously adopted his position. Their agreement, however, would not be the function of any cogent reasoning or biblical exegesis since none has been given.

Now if God was to act contrary to his perfect character, what would that be? It wouldn't be a display of might. It would be a display of weakness. Now I often think that when we read about Nebuchadnezzar, "whom he would he slew, whom he would he kept alive" - that weak kind of thing - well, that's what God's like. But that's not sovereignty, that's tyranny. That's the cold, icy hand of tyranny. And that's what the gods of the heathen are like. If you go over to India, you'll see - I can't even remember the name of this particular god. But there is one terrible god who has about six arms on both sides of her body and holding in different ones there'll be seven heads; and all sorts of terrible imagery because their gods, the gods of the heathen, they're what we would call capricious. You never know what they're going to do next. They just act in a completely random, arbitrary, unpredictable way. Not so with God. He acts consistent with his character. (23 minutes, 20 seconds)

Instead of demonstrating how reprobation is contrary to God's character, Mr. Penfold chooses to engage in demagogy. He seeks to disprove a view of divine sovereignty that includes reprobation by stirring up the emotions and prejudices of his audience. This kind of sovereignty is tantamount to the "cold, icy hand of tyranny" and grotesque Hindu deities we are told. No one, of course, wants to be associated with such pejorative things.

While demagogy is effective on the weak minded, those of sharper intellect tend not to mistake the strength of Mr. Penfold's feeling and prejudice for the strength of his argument (compliments to Mr. William Gladstone). There is nothing here but straw men and unsubstantiated allegations. Christians who believe that God ordains everything that comes to pass also believe that God's determination is according to his decree, which is consistent with his character. They do not believe God is a tyrant or capricious, nor has Mr. Penfold shown these things to be the logical consequence of the position. The task before Mr. Penfold remains undone. He must prove that the sovereignty of God as understood by Mr. Pink is inconsistent with the love of God.

That's why when we come to Ephesians chapter one - which is a favourite verse of the sort of deterministic brethren - where it says that "God works all things according to the counsel of his will," we need to be careful. I remember Robert McPheat saying years ago that some people are so Calvinistic they can see the sovereignty of God in the wagging of a dog's tail. He works all things - all things, the wagging of a dog's tail included. That's not what Ephesians one eleven means. What's Ephesians one all about? Ephesians one is about predestination to sonship and predestination to heirship.... the one who's predestinated you to sonship is the one who works all things according to his will - that's the all things there. He's the one who controls it all, whose purpose cannot be thwarted. He's the great eternal, sovereign one. (25 minutes, 47 seconds)

Although Mr. Penfold fails to mention it, there is plenty more in Ephesians 1 than sonship and heirship. There is holiness and blamelessness (1.4), grace (1.6), redemption and forgiveness of sins (1.7), and revelation (1.9). The mention of the revelation of God's mysterious will leads Paul to state in Ephesians 1.10 that God shall "gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him" (KJV). The reference to "all things" here - which certainly helps clarify the "all things" in Ephesians 1.11 that God works according to the counsel of his will - is comprehensive, being in reference to heaven and earth, which is nothing less than the universe itself. If the wagging of a dog's tail is somehow outside the purview of the universe, then I'll agree with Mr. Penfold. Otherwise, I'll submit to the plain teaching of determinism found in Ephesians 1.10-11.

I would say, fourthly, that there's a difference between God knowing the future and God determining the future. We all know that the sun will be coming up in the morning, but we have nothing to do with that sun coming up. Some would say that God knows all things that will happen because he has determined all things that will happen, which bogs us into a mechanical universe in which there's no free will at all. Now I believe that God can foresee how men will act without efficiently decreeing how they shall act. God knows what men will freely do. For example, the Lord Jesus said to Peter, "Peter, the cock shall not crow this day before thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." The lord knew that? But did he ordain that Peter would deny him? Is God the author of sin? That would make God forcing Peter to sin against God. That would pit God against himself. No. God allowed Peter to deny [Jesus] of his own free will, knowing what Peter would do, but not making him do it. (33 minutes, 37 seconds)

There are several issues to address here.

Firstly, Mr. Penfold is correct in that there is a difference between God's knowledge and God's determination; this despite his poor example. In his example, Mr. Penfold equivocates on the word "know," since we do not know that the sun will rise tomorrow as God knows. If God knows the sun will rise tomorrow, it is because it is true. We know the sun will rise tomorrow inductively; that is, we assume the sun will rise tomorrow. We expect the future to be like the past. But this expectation is not necessarily true and, therefore, not knowledge per se.

Poor examples aside, God's knowledge is different from his determination. Says Ron Di Giacomo:
God's knowledge of a future choice does not ensure its fruition. Rather, it presupposes the deterministic nature of its fruition. Knowledge is receptive not causative....Accordingly, that a choice cannot be contrary to what it ends up being is not a matter of God's foreknowledge but rather it is a matter that it is true that the choice will come to pass. God knows it because it is true, for God knows all truth. The grounding of that truth is of course God's determination. In sum, God determines that it will be true that X chooses Y in circumstance Z, therefore, God knows it as true. ("Free Will - Confusion Abounds" 2009).
In other words, God's knowledge of all things does not determine all things. God's knowledge does, however, presuppose God's determination of all things. Else, how does God know?

Secondly, Mr. Penfold makes the claim that God's determination of all things reduces the universe to a mechanistic one without free will. Since he does not define what the inherently ambiguous term "free will" means, it is difficult to address this allegation. If, for example, free will is understood as the liberty of spontaneity contra the liberty of indifference, then God's determination does not do violence to man's free will and Mr. Penfold's allegation is baseless. Since he does not say more, it is difficult to elaborate more.

Thirdly, there is a lot of poor reasoning when Mr. Penfold introduces the example of Peter's three-fold denial of the Lord Jesus. He affirms that Jesus knew Peter would deny him, but without ordaining it. The problem, then, is the grounds on which the Lord knew. How?

Fourthly, Mr. Penfold reverts to demagogy again, claiming that determinism would mean God forced Peter to sin and pit God against himself. Once again, he has not substantiated the claim. Weak minds, unfortunately, will mistake the strength of his emotion and prejudice for the strength of his argument.

We're not as free as Adam was. In fact, we're slaves of sin. We're subject to corruption, but our free will has not been subjected to total destruction. We're born with a propensity to sin, but not a necessity to sin. Sin is, yes, it's inevitable, but it's not unavoidable. We're not all as bad as we could be. (35 minutes, 27 seconds)

A couple of brief comments: In case some should misunderstand, the will of man is not a structure or organ such that it can be destroyed. The will is an operation, or function, of the mind. The will is simply the mind choosing something. Christians who believe that God determines all things do not believe that man's mind is bereft of the operation we call the will.

Also, the idea that sin is inevitable but not unavoidable is, on the face of it, a contradiction. Something inevitable is, by definition, unavoidable. I will grant, however, that Mr. Penfold may have meant something else given the sentence that follows, namely, that we are not all as bad as we could be. With that statement I agree.

There are those who would teach us that because man is dead, which he is, they would then extrapolate that, "Well, a dead man can do nothing. He cannot believe. He cannot repent." And they have a whole sort of logical theory based on this that God then has to regenerate the man first. And then, having been born again, he is then able to believe. And that's the only way they can see it that God gets all the glory and man gets no glory. Well, it has a certain logic to it, but really it's fatally flawed because not only can a dead person not believe or not repent, a dead person can't even sin. A dead person can do nothing. Deadness there in Ephesians chapter two, "dead in trespasses and sins," is but one picture of humanity and it's separation from God. It cannot be taken to mean that a man cannot believe or cannot repent or cannot come. Not at all. (37 minutes, 42 seconds)

Mr. Penfold is, of course, referring to Calvinists here. He demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Calvinist view of total depravity. When the Calvinist says man is dead, he is using the phrase figuratively. Mr. Penfold attempts to reduce the position to absurdity by claiming that a man who is dead by the Calvinist's standard cannot even sin. But the only thing absurd here is Mr. Penfold's understanding of total depravity. As it pertains to spiritual matters, man is unresponsive like a dead man in the sense that he cannot respond positively to the gospel. In this sense, then, man is dead. But man is quite alive biologically and makes morally relevant choices (e.g., responding negatively to the gospel) despite his being in a state of death.

As it pertains to Ephesians 2, Mr. Penfold is simply wrong to suggest that spiritual death means separation from God. He is wrong on both lexical and contextual grounds. One of the lexical authorities of New Testament words states that the word "dead" in Ephesians 2 pertains to "being so morally or spiritually deficient as to be in effect dead" (A Greek English-Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature, 3rd Edition, 2000, p. 667). Further to this evidence is the context. The contrast to spiritual death in Ephesians 2 is quickening or being made alive. A strange contrast if spiritual death means separation from God. In that case, one would expect reconciliation to be the corollary.

What does God want? What is his will for sinners? Indisputably the Bible tells us in Second Peter three verse nine: "God is not willing that any should perish". He doesn't want anybody to perish, but that all should come to repentance. What does First Timothy chapter two verse four tell us? "God will have all men to be saved." God wants men to be saved. (39 minutes, 40 seconds)

Here Mr. Penfold rolls out two of the most commonly used verses in support of a desired universalism in the mind of God. These texts - 2 Peter 3.9 and 1 Timothy 2.4 - ostensibly deny any election or predestination on the part of God.

The problem with these proof-texts is that they hang on an assumed definition of "all," namely, an unrestricted sense. To people like Mr. Penfold, "all" means everyone without exception. A quick perusal of a New Testament lexicon, however, will show that "all" has both restricted and unrestricted senses depending on the context in which it is used. (Surely Mr. Penfold would not disagree since he restricts the meaning of "all things" in Ephesians 1.11.)

In 2 Peter 3.9, the apostle Peter says, "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (KJV) In this chapter, there is a clear division between two groups of people. There are the elect ("us") and the scoffers ("they"). When Peter says that God is longsuffering, he restricts it to "us." I would, therefore, suggest that the "any" and "all" have "us" as their antecedent and refer to the elect, not everyone without exception.

In addition to this contextual evidence, there is also philosophical evidence to consider. If God knows all things as a function of his omniscience - including who will be saved - and if God knows that those who will be saved are less than everyone without exception, why does he still ruminate over universalism, desiring the salvation of everyone without exception? This is a very difficult question, indeed, since one of the axioms of Mr. Penfold's sermon is that God acts in accordance with his character. How then is God's desire (salvation of everyone without exception) consistent with his knowledge (not salvation of everyone without exception)?

As with 2 Peter 3.9, the contextual evidence leads us to interpret "all" in 1 Timothy 2.4 in a restricted sense. In 1 Timothy 2.1, the apostle Paul exhorts prayer for "all men," which is surely a reference to everyone without distinction (all classes of men including kings and those in authority), not everyone without exception since the latter is impossible from a human point of view. Further, in 1 Timothy 2.4 we are told that the Lord gave himself "a ransom for all." Since the atonement is here spoken of in effectual, not provisional, terms, an understanding of "all" as everyone without exception would necessarily lead to universalism. How can God send sinners to hell for their sins if the Lord has actually ransomed himself for them? If then, "all" must have a restricted sense in 1 Timothy 2.1 and 2.6, what reason would there be to understand the word in an unrestricted sense in 1 Timothy 2.4? We are not told by Mr. Penfold. It is merely assumed to be so.

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In summary, despite the many good things about God that Mr. Penfold expounds in his sermon, his understanding of the sovereignty of God is deficient. While he affirms the language of sovereignty (e.g., God is king), he denies God's sovereignty in the determination of all things. In presenting his case, Mr. Penfold is long on allegations, straw men, and demagogy, but short on proof.

By Joel Barnes barnzilla.ca

Articles and sermons by Michael Penfold can be found at webtruth.org. Mr Penfold is a moderator of the The Scripture Forum and Divisional Director (Cards & Gifts) for Ritchie Christian Media.

Also by Joel Barnes:-

A Review of Walter Boyd's Sermon on Election at Hebron Gospel Hall, Bicester, UK on 10th May 2007 by Joel Barnes (Part 1)

A Review of Walter Boyd's Sermon on Election at Hebron Gospel Hall, Bicester, UK on 10th May 2007 by Joel Barnes (Part 2)


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